WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has launched an internal investigation into whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's former White House liaison illegally took party affiliation into account in hiring career federal prosecutors, officials said yesterday.
The allegations against Monica Goodling represent a potential violation of federal law and signal that a joint probe begun in March by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility has expanded beyond the controversial dismissal of eight US attorneys last year.
The disclosures about Goodling were among several developments yesterday in connection with the prosecutor firings, including a new subpoena seeking presidential adviser Karl Rove's e-mails and new accusations from two of the dismissed US attorneys.
In newly released statements, the two alleged that they were threatened by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's chief of staff immediately before Gonzales testified before the Senate in January.
Paul Charlton of Phoenix and John McKay of Seattle said Michael Elston called them on Jan. 17 and offered an implicit agreement of silence by Gonzales in exchange for them continuing not to discuss publicly their removals. Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee the next day and refused to provide details about the firings.
"My handwritten and dated notes of this call reflect that I believed Mr. Elston's tone was sinister and that he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal," McKay wrote in response to questions from the House Judiciary Committee.
Elston's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, said the calls were intended only to reassure the two prosecutors that Gonzales did not plan to disclose their dismissals, which were not public then.
"Mike didn't intend to intimidate anybody," Driscoll said.
Two other fired prosecutors complained pointedly about Elston, according to the statements released yesterday.
Carol Lam of San Diego wrote that Elston "erroneously accused me of 'leaking' my dismissal to the press, and criticized me for talking to other dismissed US attorneys."
Bud Cummins of Little Rock repeated his account of a Feb. 20 phone conversation with Elston, two days after Cummins was quoted in a newspaper article. Cummins wrote that Elston "essentially said that if the controversy continued, then some of the USAs would have to be 'thrown under the bus.' " Elston has previously described Cummins's reaction as the product of a misunderstanding.
The firing of eight US attorneys last year, seven of them on one day, sparked a furor in Congress as Gonzales and other Justice Department officials offered shifting explanations for the move. McKay and another prosecutor, David Iglesias of New Mexico, also have alleged improper contacts from GOP lawmakers about ongoing criminal investigations, causing some Democrats to allege that some of the prosecutors were sacked for political reasons.
Lawmakers from both parties have called for Gonzales's resignation, but President Bush has said Gonzales will remain in his post.
Dean Boyd, Justice Department spokesman, said that as part of her job, Goodling reviewed applications for entry-level prosecutor positions in some offices headed by interim or acting US attorneys. In those cases, Boyd said, Goodling "may have taken prohibited considerations into account," and "whether or not the allegation is true is currently the subject of the ongoing" investigation by the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Boyd noted that it is against federal law and Justice Department policies to consider political affiliation in hiring for nonpolitical jobs. The allegation against Goodling was referred to investigators several weeks ago by US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg of Alexandria, Va., who was serving temporarily as Gonzales's chief of staff.